/ Money

Banks, I just want to speak to a human being

Call centre cartoon

‘Press 1 for balance statements, 2 for payments…’ If you’ve called your bank recently, you were probably greeted by the robotic tones of an automated system. How easy is it to get through to a real person?

In order find an answer to this question, we called 10 banks and building societies as customers and went through all the options on their telephone menu. Of these, only First Direct puts you straight through to an adviser, while the remainder use interactive voice response (IVR) systems to filter calls.

Most banks told us that the main reason for this is to deal with a high volume of calls, which seems like a perfectly reasonable justification, especially when you consider Lloyds receives more than 109m calls a year to its contact centre network. Automated systems can also benefit customers by connecting to the person best-suited to help with their particular query.

Diagram of Navigating the telephone banking maze

However, we found that banks’ IVR systems are often unnecessarily complicated. For example, only three include ‘speak to an adviser’ as a standalone option on the first menu. Others bury it under several layers of options, meaning you have to spend longer searching for it.

It’s easy to feel a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of options on bank phone lines, and I think the overall experience could be significantly improved by making the menus less convoluted.

You can see just how difficult it is to speak to a human being when you call your bank with the diagram above (click on it to enlarge). It’s our interpretation of the options that appear on the telephone menu used by NatWest.

Security stumbling blocks

Clunky security systems can also act as an obstacle when contacting your bank via an automated system. In response to our last Conversation on calling your bank, commenter Rarrar highlighted this issue:

‘I just wish banks etc would have an option for general queries which don’t require security.’

The security checks are particularly fiddly when the system fails to recognise the details you’ve entered. It’s even more frustrating if you’re asked to repeat the same information when you’re connected to an adviser, which is what happened when we called Barclays and Santander.

Only one of the banks we looked at gave customers the option to speak to an adviser without having to input a range of personal details first.

The human touch

We’ve launched our Big Change campaign to ensure banks put customers’ needs at the heart of their business. Customers should be able to access services quickly and easily and banks should do more to ensure that this is achieved, for example by providing the option to speak to an adviser at the beginning of the call, or by making it possible to bypass the IVR at any point. And there should be no attempts to sell products to customers that they don’t want or need.

Do you find it a struggle to speak to a human being when calling your bank? Should banks be simplifying their menus in order to make them more accessible or do you find them easy enough to navigate?


I recall questioning whether NatWest telephone banking was as simple as claimed, but soon found it easy if tedious to use. I rarely use it now, having moved to online banking when the bank made their terms & conditions simple, fairer and understandable by people who are not computer scientists.

It’s easy to speak to someone after logging in, so I don’t know why NatWest has been picked on. I have Lloyds TSB credit cards and they really make it difficult to speak to anyone. I was once advised to say ‘Advisor’ when prompted to press buttons on the phone, and that works eventually.

M Selby says:
5 May 2020

No way! They keep stopping me using my card October to May this year. Is that helpful? I think not. Have they sorted it – no they haven’t. Last thing I need during lockdown as I am classed as being over 70 and not allowed out much. But I still have to eat! But my card was still declined today! I am hungry. I have the funds. PLEASE PLEASE let me buy some food.

It’s just another quality issue. Banks automated systems are (generally speaking) as bad the other elements of their customer service.

I remain firmly of the opinion that it would be better to replace all bankers with machines and invest in improving technology rather than try to change an employee culture that is beyond redemption.

I don’t hang around after I have dialled the phone number. As soon as the robot has started its sentence, I press # repeatedly in order to flummox the system and I get told after a very short time that I have exceeded the number of attempts at entering my card number and that I will be put through to one of the humans, which is what I was looking for in the first place.

I have not heard the lovely word ‘flummox’ for years, Sophie. I might give this a go instead of saying nothing or saying a lot to try to break out of cycles of button pressing.

Hopefully multiple ”##” will work on any automated system as long as the robot can read & someone somewhere in the world is awake at some O’clock remote area. So will be giving it ago. Thanks for the tip

Apart from the fact I 99.999% bank online these days, if I ever need t ring the bank, I can guarantee will can speak to human with a couple of rings. No clues as to which bank I use.

I would never bank with a bank that outsources potential UK jobs to the far east. If they want to save money, outsource the Directors first.

John U says:
22 November 2012

Good idea William. Why don’t the banks outsource top jobs to low-cost countries
like the Indian sub-continent? It’s not ‘gonna’ happen. It would be like turkeys
voting for Xmas! Still it got me thinking how about outsourcing other jobs to such
places e.g.MPs, eurocrats etc!

Lloyds get 109m phone calls a year – over 2m week. Perhaps it’s the lack of the human response that prompts people to make multiple attempts to get a response to their query. Alternatively it might be because people actually prtefer the automated system; call volumes might fall if they substituted humans for the IVR.

Richard Kelly says:
19 October 2012

Although I can see where the banks (and other institutions) are coming from as far as cost savings are concerned (no holiday pay or lunch breaks for Mr Computer) I don’t like what the customer service lines of many banks are turning into, a revenue stream.

I bank with the Co-op and have no complaints with their service as I use an 0845 number which is included in my home phone call package, but many are changing these numbers to an 0844 number which is chargeable at 10 p/m and not included with calls packages. Added to that the button pressing nightmare of some systems, they are getting a health revenue share from all those calls and so are in no hurry to make things more ‘user friendly’.

I am really getting nostalgic for the days of branch banking.

Your very lucky to have your 0845 facility included many of us Do Not ! and find this extra cost, a burden esp when the call centre can drag these calls out to a 38 min call, or as in the case of M & S banking 10 am -3pm , and I had eventually call long distance to their head office, to get a return call next day !

par ailleurs says:
20 October 2012

Have to agree on the Co-op Bank there Richard. Once you’ve learnt the necessary button to push you don’t need to wait but you do need your security details which is fair enough really. At least it’s only numbers with the Co-op. I did have to deal with an elderly relative’s financial affairs recently and voice recognition software drove me to distraction so perhaps we should be grateful for only having to enter a few numbers and waiting for a human being.

I rarely ring my bank – and then it is usually for information that is not readily available on-line. I must say that both Barclays and Nationwide have been OK in getting through quickly to the right person.
I totally agree about the hassle of needing security details before you can get anywhere. If you have a general query not specific to your account then you should get an answer without the problem of digging out your details.
I hate paying any company of who I am or might be a customer for a phone call – often of indeterminate duration. As my normal landline calls are free I put the 084…. number into SAYNOTO0870.com and get their regional number, or use the international number without the prefix.
On a related (?) topic, I do wish all banks would have a secure email contact facility for on-line customers. Tesco Bank and Post Office currently don’t, whereas Derbyshire and Principality do of those we use. It is so much easier to write your query down (at any time of the day or night) and get a written response – although why they cannot respond fairly promptly beats me. At least with a phone call you usually get a prompt answer.

I strongly agree about the unnecessary security checks, Malcolm. If you are asking a question that could be asked by anyone, there is no need. If you are asking for information specific to your account, etc. then that is the time to go through security.

I used to hate having to log into a secure system to check a student’s email address that was based on surname and initials with the exception of duplicates, when one would by J.Smith@ and the other something like John.Smith@ It wasted a huge amount of time over the year.

I’m all for security where it is needed – but only where it is needed.

What annoys me about these phone menu systems is (and this isn’t just banks) that they generally ask for your account number or card details, etc., before giving you access to the menu selections, even for non-secure information, but by the time you reach a human operator, those details have vanished and you have to give all your details again. These systems have been around 10 years or more; how hard can it be to restrict requests for those details to functions requiring them and then pass those details to the CS operators?

I quite agree, and how many times do they ask for you’re phone number ( which I’m not blocking) and their system can’t even tell them that. I always answer “can’t you see the number I’m calling you from”, and then end up having to tell them 🙁

And what’s with the several minutes of junk they go through before you can start pushing buttons. The Royal Fail order line is a good example of this.

And FYI I’m not referring to my own bank, I have none of those gripes so it is possible, if you value your customers.

The people taking your call genuinely do not see your phone number, presumably because of inadequacy of their phone system. Sophisticated systems do not always do what is needed. Sometimes I wonder if this who design these systems have experienced the frustration of using them.

I have nothing against using automated systems for routine matters but like William, I hate to have to listen to all the announcements that I have heard many times.

I think its fair to say that my bank has the ultimate of all automated phone systems (from a customers point of view anyway). A Mark 1 human being.

Joyce Howard- Edwards says:
3 July 2019

Which bank is that?

Sugar Plum says:
20 April 2018

Be aware BE AWARE BE Aware of Scam calls. I got a call from Lloyds Bank they confirmed my name. I think this was a scan call so I hung up.

Joyce Howard- Edwards says:
3 July 2019

First Direct used to be the best, with a wonderful service offering human answering with a …’Can I help?’ Now they have fallen into line with all the other banks by offering ‘here’s something of interest whilst you are waiting’ What the sound was I cannot describe fully, except it sounded like gun fire! Ålso, this is proceeded with a long intro about all their other services, scams and info. In addition .the operator to whom eventually I spoke to had an accent that defied all recognition. What an utter disappointment. First Direct you should be ashamed.

I wrote to Lloyds Bank with a number of questions, I received a letter with one paragraph saying “if you wish to discuss your account please ring this number”. I found that quite rude, can they do this? Demand I use the phone?


My only contact with Lloyds Bank & or Barclays Banks is via e-mail informing me that my Bank Account has been frozen due to unusual activity, and to reopen the account click on this or that.
I print off the e-mail & present this to the Branch asking they send to their fraud dept.


Julian says:
31 July 2020

One of the most frustrating things about modern Banking, apart from all the issues raised above which I wholeheartedly agree and endorse is the really annoying email from your Bank asking for information in a ‘no-reply’ email. I am seriously thinking of blocking all ‘no-reply’ and no-response’ emails.

Mick Anic says:
19 February 2021

Its not just banks, most organisations are very difficult to contact these days. Its ironic in the days of the iphone umpteen, worldwide interweb, 5G networks and endless ‘platforms’ whatever platforms are, that speaking to a real person is such a drama. Apparently even the younger generation are shunning conversation in favour of the latest trendy ‘platform’. Years ago pigeons were a part of the web of the time, tie a little letter to its foot and launch it into the air and fingers crossed. A bit like sending an email these days. The pigeon loft is now a garden shed and the spare room is the office. Progress it may be, but from my ‘seasoned’ point of view, life is increasingly less enjoyable due to the mindset behind the way some technology is used. Maybe its all changed too fast for me, but I remember better days when the bank manager was only too keen to have a little chin wag.
Maybe humans are turning digital and i’m an old analogue version that just doesn’t get the signal ??

These automated telephone answer systems are a complete joke and an insult to the intelligence of humanity! Its not just the banks either, and all the corporations boast about their customer service. It’s like, ‘Trump claiming he would drain the swamp!’

The problems is mediocrity rule, you have mediocre programmers designing and writing these systems, and mediocre automatons on the end of the phone when you do get a human, and mediocre managers approving and accepting these useless systems and employees.

Ageism in the UK recruitment market plays a role too, skilled, experienced and intelligent people as in over 40 get rejected for cheaper salaried 20 year olds. The UK is a a shameful joke, and society is moving in a retrograde step on account of all this uselessness!

James says:
29 December 2021

Banks can employ more English speak people in the UK – they make “billions” off our money! It is disgusting how they treat the “human beings” that deposit their money with them!